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The sky is the limit as France awaits the eclipse

People are pouring into tiny Noyon, hoping to see the last total solar eclipse of the century. Safety aids are being touted, extra trains are running, the Concorde will make a special flight above the clouds. But what if rains?

Just a few days before the last total solar eclipse of the century, and this historic, cobblestoned town north of Paris, the official French viewing site for the event, was bathed in gray.

Quelle obscurite! There was Darkness at Nearly Noon in Noyon. The few neon signs here were blinking in the gloom. The sun was hidden behind a sky as forbidding as an existentialist novel.

Inside Le Balto tavern and horse-betting parlor on the main square, ceiling lights twinkled so bettors could read their tip sheets while the morning races flashed by on the TV screen. (Le Balto's unofficial eclipse-friendly motto: You Furnish the Money, We'll Furnish the Light to Lose It By.)

Had the moon speeded up and come around early to blot out the sun? After all, the eclipse isn't due until Wednesday. No, was the commonsense answer from Dominique Bonnaud, the mayor's assistant for seldom-recurring celestial trajectories and other big events, speaking in a well-lighted City Hall.

"But we have been preparing for the eclipse for three years,'" he said, ever since the French Astronomical Society wrote letters to 200 cities in the path of the moon's shadow across France, seeking a place to hold monthly conferences and work their solar experiments.

The only "oui'" was from Noyon, which lies directly in what astronomers call the path of totality.

"I think the others didn't care about an event that was only going to last for two minutes,'" said Bonnaud, grinning like a man who knows a planetary tourist draw when he sees one. "Now, of course, they all want to get in on it."'

And not just in the path of totality. All of France seems to have caught eclipse fever in the past few weeks.

No fewer than five top members of the French government _ representing the ministries of labor, youth and sports, education, science and transportation _ held a press conference at the venerable (founded in 1647) Observatoire de Paris, to model scientifically approved viewing glasses now available throughout Europe.

They also announced a series of emergency safety measures, such as prohibiting large trucks and those carrying dangerous chemicals from operating during the three-or-so hours the eclipse will take to sweep across France, and requiring pilots to wear night-vision goggles while flying near the moving shadow.

Television specials and newspaper spreads delve into the history and importance of the event. A daily stream of visitors strides through a free eclipse exhibit at Hotel de Ville Museum (it includes drums you can pound just like they do to ward off evil spirits in some countries when the sun disappears at midday).

Special tours, seminars and trains will take many of the government-estimated 25-million French and foreign sungazers to locations such as Noyon for the day, since Paris and other large cities will not get the full effect.

Note: This town, which usually gets just 8,000 tourists a year to gaze at its Roman ruins, expects 60,000 eclipse viewers. The last room in Noyon's four hotels was rented 18 months ago. The special day-train from Paris _ in addition to the 10 on the regular schedule _ is filling up fast.

For the adventurous, there are also special balloon flights and seats on Air France's supersonic Concorde to let viewers rise above the haze and clouds.

Even La Maison d'Astronomie, a leading Paris store catering to the stars-and-planets crowd, is shutting its doors so its staff can join a group of 800 astronomy fans headed for eastern France, where they plan a day of eclipse worship.

From one perspective, France's backward-craning reaction to the eclipse is understandable. After all, the Paris observatory is the said to be the world's largest (800 researchers and employees) and is easily the most beautiful.

The French scientific community has always been world-class, with interest in scientific issues and phenomena traditionally high.

"And don't forget,'" says Virginia Van Hove, Noyon's gleaming tourism director, "we in France haven't seen such a total eclipse like this for more than 300 years.'" And the next won't come for another 81.

From another perspective, though, the fervent French response is surprising. The shadow band, about 60 miles wide, will actually touch or cross more than a dozen countries. And the highest intensity, those moments when the shadow will fall the longest and most directly on land, will come at the Romanian village of Rimnicu-Vilcea, near Timosora, well east of France.

Part of the French reaction to what one exuberant copywriter termed the "hamburger celeste," could be self-defense. France's own image has been in a sort of eclipse lately:

American Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France, cycling's big trophy event, by several country miles. The best showing by a French rider was eighth.

During the bombing of Yugoslavia, French aviators had no great impact and got little media attention. No French pilots bombed any foreign embassies, for instance. (A Frenchman, Bernard Kouchner, was named to head the U.N. administration in Kosovo, but the U.S. insisted on assigning an American counterpart, diluting his power, and so far Kouchner has been regularly upstaged by a steady stream of visiting dignitaries, from the Clintons to Tony Blair.)

And experts from NASA and elsewhere say the best viewing, given the uncertain weather across most of Europe, won't be Europe at all, but more likely on a sand dune somewhere in an Iranian desert _ where gray clouds such as those above Noyon last week rarely interfere with the sun's rays _ or celestial blockage of them.

That doesn't faze Van Hove, who quietly reveals the semi-secret location of the large, five-hectare field on the outskirts of Noyon where she plans to let 60,000 or so scientists and visitors congregate to watch the sun go behind the moon. While it didn't take Noyon folks long to figure out where the viewing area will be (the local soccer pitch), strangers have not been told: Otherwise "They would be camping there right now,'" says Van Hove.

With an argument-ending shake of her head, Sylvie Salah, chief of solar research at the Paris Observatory, has a quick and blunt comeback for those worried about weather and who might be considering choosing Iran over France.:

"It's a simple matter. Would you rather watch the eclipse with the Mona Lisa, or the Ayatollah?"'

Freelance writer Laurence Jolidon is an American in Paris, this summer.